Every year it’s a guarantee someone will grouse about record labels and musicians never taking risks anymore, and never producing anything exciting or unique. While that’s probably true to a certain extent, it’s not been true in much of 2013. For instance, first there was Kanye West’s Yeezus and then Jay Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail, both of which took unique approaches to their releases while dropping some #newrules along the way.
Who knows what will come next, but it’s always good to remember that sometimes musicians and record labels do take huge risks and gambles, which sometimes even pay off and end up reshaping the way we think about music.
See also: Sorry, But Kanye Is the GOAT
5. Flaming Lips, Zaireeka and The Soft Bulletin
According to Jim DeRogatis’ book about the Flaming Lips, Staring at Sound, the Zaireeka sessions were marred by personal conflict and a lack of faith on the part of the Lips’ record label Warner Bros. In fact, it was so bad that that could have been the end of the band. They wanted to break up and Warner wanted to drop them from their contract.
Eventually their manager, Scott Booker, managed to convince the label that they could recoup the losses on the Zaireeka experiment by not counting it as an album release according to the specifications of the Lips contract and that they could have the upcoming “serious” album The Soft Bulletin in exchange for Zaireeka‘s release.
Despite the unlikelihood of the Lips seeing success at that time, Warner took a shot and let them do it. The band fixed their personal relationships and came back stronger than ever, finally attaining a commercial and critical breakthrough with The Soft Bulletin.
4. Kanye West’s Rap Career
As explained on the final track of Kanye West’s first record, The College Dropout‘s “Last Call”, West was never intended to be a rapper. He was a producer, and when he entered the game in the early 2000s making beats of Jay-Z, that was all a producer could be. Nobody believed a producer could spit.
Nevertheless, West pressed on with his rap career, recording songs of his own and showing them to people, hanging out with rappers like Talib Kweli and Dead Prez, and working on his flows. Eventually, he managed to convince Roc-A-Fella Records to give him a chance, but even then they hedged their bets by loading his album with famous names to bolster him.
That suited Kanye just fine, who rose to the occasion and proved himself right next to the stars. The College Dropout ended up being a runaway success and made Kanye into the massive superstar that he is today.
3. Jay Z’s The Blueprint
In 2001, hip-hop was dominated by pop tones and many rap fans felt that true hip-hop was dead. Jay-Z himself was among the key offenders, being widely considered a sell out after forsaking the dark production and lyrical themes of his first record Reasonable Doubt for the pop sound of records like Vol. 3: Life and Times of S. Carter.
So imagine everyone’s surprise in 2001 when Jay-Z decided to hang up all that for a deeper rap record infused with new blood and new sounds that didn’t match the pop landscape at all. The Blueprint could have been an utter commercial failure, featuring few of Jay’s typical collaborators in favor of production from Bink, Kanye West, and Just Blaze, high pitched soul samples instead of heavy bass, and only one guest appearance from another rapper in Eminem.
It could have been, but it wasn’t. The Blueprint was instead a massive hit that changed the shape of the pop landscape instead of fitting into it. It launched the careers of the collaborators featured on it, and it has since come to be considered a masterpiece of the genre.
2. Radiohead’s Kid A
Electronic music was definitely on the rise in 2000, but no one could have known how big it would get or how it would come to dominate music in such a way that people would begin to speculate about whether it’s going to overtake rock and hip-hop entirely.
Somehow though Radiohead had a way to see into the future. After cementing their status as one of the biggest bands in the world with the guitar heavy rock album OK Computer, plus its critically successful and even more guitar heavy predecessor The Bends, Radiohead could have rode the wave and simply repeated themselves, becoming Coldplay before Coldplay.
Instead, they rolled the dice and made Kid A, an album generally considered one of the best of its decade.
Photo by Jim Bricker
Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters on The Wall tour in Houston.
In 1980, Pink Floyd had a vision for something incredible. They had already been known for amazing stage shows, but it was then that bandleader Roger Waters conceptualized the legendary stage show for The Wall. There was only one problem: it was hugely expensive, they didn’t have the funding, and the band was falling apart (having just fired keyboardist Rick Wright).
They went ahead and paid for the tour out of pocket. All members–except Wright who worked on a “for hire” basis and paid nothing into the tour–lost money on the endeavor and it was a huge strain on the already strained interpersonal relationships in the band.
The tour, however, became so well-known and beloved among fans that, by the time Waters decided to revive the stage show in 2010, its esteem was so large that all shows sold out almost immediately. Waters’ revived Wall tour ended up being one of the highest-grossing concert tours of all time.